Friday, September 28, 2012

The 'Course' in MOOC

A discussion taking place on the OER-Forum Discussion List. Posts by other people in italics.

Abel Caine wrote, "I have to intervene with the developing country perspective. Millions of smart, motivated children/students for many reasons do not complete regular school or university. Given the opportunity, these learners have a burning desire to 'complete' the course. "Well-designed and smartly-delivered" MOOCs with a valid, transferable certificate of completion (learning experience) may be 1 viable solution. I hope new global initiatives such as Education First will take this into account."

Andy Lane wrote, "Yes participants whether they complete or not can gain from the experience but we also know that many can be adversely affected by the experience through a sense of failure or lack of esteem. I have no issue with low completion rates as long as people do not claim that this is widening participation amongst the currently disenfranchised as I suspect most who complete MOOCs are already adept learners with plenty of privileges. At the UKOU we have struggled to support those suffering multiple deprivations in terms of access to education and the resources needed to support that education."

With respect to cMOOCs, the student experience is more like joining a community than working their way through a body of content. In this sense, the concept of course completion doesn't really make sense - what is it to 'complete' joining a community? You are more or less engaged with the community; you are more or less engaged with the material.

John Sener wrote, "I agree with Stephen's observations in that it is unrealistic to expect high completion rates from MOOCs because of their structure. However, this structural characteristic is one of several reasons why MOOCs are better seen through the lens of open learning resources rather than open educational resources IMO. Perhaps the "C" in MOOC should be changed to mean "Community" in that case, because the  concept of "course" does imply a sense of completion, i.e., something > with a beginning and an end which is determined by an entity besides the learner. (Or change the name to MOOLE where LE = Learning Experience.)"

Here's why the C in MOOC continues to stand for 'Course'. A MOOC typically has a fixed start and end date. Between those dates there is a fixed series of events. I characterize them has being similar to a 'course of lectures' in the traditional sense (eg. ). Today, of course, they're not necessarily lectures any more. But the idea of a series of events structured around a topic continues. Hence, a MOOC is a 'course'. But again, it doesn't make sense to talk about 'completing' a MOOC, even if it is structured around a series of events, because again, like a community, you can dip into these events as much or as little as you want.

It's like watching a TV series. We don't typically talk about 'completing' a TV series (though you can do that if you want; last year I watched all 134 episodes of Xena; I 'completed' the series (it took me half a year)). Even if there is a story arc across the seasons of a series, we typically feel satisfied watching an episode at a time, and enjoy chatting about the episide with our friends. We do not - nor should we - feel we have somehow been deficient if we miss an episode; we can always go back to it or (eventually) pick it up on Netflix.

John Sener wrote a longish post saying, among other things, "Education requires societally-defined expectations (at worst, imposed one way; at best, negotiated between the learner and society through its proxy institutions), but if "you can dip into these events as much or as little as you want," then that's learning -- user-defined and driven. Non-user-defined learning outcomes mean a less open, less MOOC-like experience. 

"Calling MOOCs courses also fosters an expectation of moving through an entire "series of events structured around a topic" to an end which involves recognition (certification, grades, etc.) of completion based on satisfactory demonstrated performance of something gained (knowledge, skills, attitudes, etc.) related to that topic, and usually a comprehensive or broad rather than selective mastery of that topic."

John's post has two major objectives. First, it seeks to establish a certain definition of 'course' and 'education'. And then it uses those definitions to argue that MOOCs should not be called courses, and that people do not obtain an education from them.

The basis for these definitions of 'course' and 'education', according to John, is that the terms create certain expectations - the use of 'course' suggests they will be like what he calls 'traditional courses', and the term 'education', he writes, " requires societally-defined expectations."

I do not accept these definitions of 'course' and 'education', and John has not offered any compelling reason to accept them, except that he suggests people have these expectations. Perhaps some people have these expectations, but clearly not everybody does.

This is especially the case with the term 'education'. John suggests it entails " requires substantive interaction with designated knowledgeable facilitators (instructors, TAs, field experts, etc.)." But few, if any, define education in terms of the process; they define it in terms of the achievement. And this achievement need not involve tests and certificates. When Abraham Lincoln taught himself to read and write and to be a lawyer, we say he earned himself an education, not a learning.

And it is also the same for the term 'course'. I have already given an account of the traditional meaning of the word course, and this traditional meaning in no way entailed classes and lessons and tests and certificates. The formalized concept of the course is a recent invention, designed for a specific purpose, and today obsolete.

What MOOCs have demonstrated is twofold, and these speak directly to our understanding of how we may obtain an education, and how we may be recognized for it:

First, MOOCs taught us that rather than depend exclusively on "knowledgeable facilitators (instructors, TAs, field experts, etc.)," which are very expensive, a community working together can support itself. This is in fact how professionals further their own education, is common practice in existing instututions of higher learning, and now possible to the larger population via self-organized online communities (especially those formed around a series of learning events).

Second, MOOCs taught us that an education - properly so-called - may be obtained in this manner, and the learning thus obtained demonstrated and recognized via the production of artifacts and actions related to the subject of the learning; there is no prior set of learning objectives nor formal test (both of which can be, and routinely are, subverted) but rather a mechanism of recognition via participation.

These features satisfy quite well the meaning and usage of the terms 'course' and 'education', and they do so in a way which not only empowers students and enables them to design their own education, it does so in a way such that all members of society, and not merely those with wealthy and supportive parents, can engage and learn in the most challenging and professional environment possible,

Indeed, I would turn John's argument on its head. I challenge that the artificial forms we have come in recent decades to call 'courses' and an 'education' are outright fabrications, plasticized facsimiles of the real thing to be offered at the greatest fee the market will bear to an unwitting public, while those who can afford it continue to have their much less formal and much more rewarding education at elite institutions.

What you have when you assemble an education filled with structured courses, formalized exams, and high-priced credentials, is a potemkin village, a cargo cult experience in which people attending Your City High School or the University of Your State act out as though they were graduating Eton or Radcliffe and Harvard or Yale but merely go though the motions, obtain a piece of paper, and move on with their lives not realizing they have been cheated out of what could have been a worthwhile education.

Ask anyone. Ask them what they valued from school and university: was it the learning objectives, midterm tests, and the accumulation of course credits? Or was it working on the student newspaper, participating in drama society, organizing a rally, or setting up a student enterprise? Or even leaving it all on the sprts field or spending it all at the student pub!

No, I do not yield the ground regading the terms 'course' and 'education'. I take them back from the institution, and I return them to the people.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Being a Philosopher

My response to a comment from Pandora on a post about philosophy

> "Isn't philosophy taught mostly like read this, talk about it, write about it, argue about it."

Yes, but it's how these are taught that results in the benefits. For example:

- "read this" - means more than 'skim' or even 'read like a novel' - we are taught to analyze structure, examine context, find voice, and more - what some call 'close reading', except for a philosopher, it becomes second nature

- 'talk about it" - means more than chat or describe experiences - it means learning to be an 'active listener', able to rephrase and reinterpret, to adduce information, to describe clearly, to again be sensitive to context, to be concise and clear

- 'write about it' - but again, this is more than just jotting down your thoughts; philosophers are expected to have a clear structure, to be precise about the use of terms, defining them where necessary, to write logically clear (and hence grammatically correct) sentences, etc.

- 'argue about it' - and again, this doesn't just mean defending your view (or as more frequently happens, restating it over and over) - it means responding to objections, examining evidence for and against, offering forms of inductive reasoning, inference to the best explanation, and more

> "perhaps you learn there are no right answers just right ways of deriving answers... "

More importantly, I think, you learn that what counts as an answer really depends on the question, what makes an answer correct really depends on the evidence, and what counts as evidence really depends on what you're looking for.

It's not so much that there are no right answers - if there weren't, we wouldn't be able to function! It's that our answers are right 'to a degree' and 'from a certain perspective'.

I'll give you an example. One belief we used a lot when I studied philosophy was the belief that the ground won't open and swallow you up the next step you take. We believe this is true, heck, we *know* this is true, and as I say, we couldn't walk down the street unless we did.

And yet... and yet... always in the back of a philosopher's mind there's the possibility that something else might happen. And as it happens, just a couple weeks ago, reality triumphed over logic, not once, but several times:

So, now we know that the ground can disappear and swallow you whole. Philosophy is about dealing with that - being able to cope in a world of imperfect information, imperfect reasoning, imperfect people.

> "I wonder why epistemology and logic isn't seeded into more research methodology courses."

So do I. Half the difficulties I face in talking about education lie in explaining to people why their conception of knowledge isn't sufficient to represent the complex phenomenon they are trying to explain. Yes, people learn things. No, knowledge isn't just stored in their minds like blocks of facts.

> "Is the problem schools promoting the benefits of the study of philosophy that you have to think?"

Yeah. The problem is that philosophy is hard; it's easy to address the central problems of  philosophy - morality, justice, knowledge, death, taxes - at a certain level. But beyond that level most people (rightly or wrongly, and we could debate that) simply hold firm to a belief, and will not yield to further argument.

It's fair enough; people don't want to have their beliefs challenged, and they don't want their children to challenge their beliefs, because they have too much other things to do with their lives. I can respect that.

Learning to be a philosopher is learning how to comprehend what people might believe even if those beliefs are not well founded, understanding *why* people might hold those beliefs, getting along with them anyways, and looking forward to a world in which the quality of beliefs and belief-formation gradually improve.

Monday, September 17, 2012

K-12 MOOCs and Communities

Responding to questions from Paul Genge:

> My question is about what tools do you think I should use to connect students with genres or communities of practice based on their personal interests

The short answer is, whatever tools the experts are already using (presuming they have formed a community of practice of some sort, which is increasingly likely). Different disciplines interact in different ways, and ultimately people wishing to join these communities will ned to use whatever tools they use.

I can see the question from the perspective of what tools might be employed to prepare someone for success using whatever tools will eventually be used. This is a list that probably changes every year. Currently, I would be stressing reading and viewing (through learning resources, video sites and the like), content creation (through blogs or video production or something similar), interaction (through social network sites such as Twitter and Facebook), immersion (in games or simulations) and community development (through wiki or other cooperative authoring sites). This list could probably be refined, but I think it’s a good start.

> connecting to communities of practice is problematic in terms of content, most will be blocked because the wholesome nature of that experience cannot be controlled.

That may be, but I consider this to be an educational practice that needs to be reassessed. I think we’re going through a period of time in which we are over-protecting children from ‘unwholeseome’ influences. This is impairing their education. I think that in time as children who have grown up with the internet become parents we will have a more open attitude to what children can see and read.

> I've checked some of the more progressive schools and can't find many people in the k-12 environment who are even talking about these ideas, which I'm sure will inform educational practice in the future. 

Yeah, I wonder about that. There is an aspect of progressive education which depends heavily on close supervision and control; even as students are being challenged and encouraged to excel and respond to challenges, this is happening in a closed and protected environment.

I think progressive education of the future might be more rough-and-tumble. I think of Teemu Arina from Finland talking about how he created his own business at age 15. You can’t create a business in a closed environment, and yet we want to encourage activities like this. Getting students into the community, even young children, means stepping back a bit from the constraints we’ve placed on them.

I read about parents driving their children to and from school, to protect them from the dangers of the city. I can’t fathom that.

> Do you think I should seek out individual communities of practice around each student's interest, connected to a cross curricular theme that a couple of my colleagues and I have come up with?

No. Let them find these communities themselves. Give them the tools they need to seek out and find community on the internet, and have them report on what they’ve found (so you can take action if they have a run-in with extremists) but generally let them find their own way.

I don’t think there’s going to be a nice pairing between communities of practice and curricular relevance. But again, if I had to choose between the two, I would choose the communities. Yes, I recognize that there are institutional challenges here. In the long run, educational professionals will be reactive – instead of bringing students to content and community, students will seek out whatever matches their own interests, and educators will supplement and support this work with resources from the curriculum, social- and content-related advice, and safety and supervision.

> Have you heard of anybody having curated genres that work for k-12 students in any way? Would MOOC's work for this or are they pretty traditionally structured with a content laden syllabus? A MOOC that seeks to develop some of the literacies you spoke about in your talk would be interesting if you know of anything like that.

I haven’t seen anyone curating work appropriate for K-12 students in this way, though I know that vast quantities of K-12 appropriate work have been created and indexed in various content websites. I couldn’t even begin to attempt a cataloguing of that work, but observe only that none of it was designed for MOOCs because it all pretty much predates them.

Having said that, a MOOC organized for the purposes of K-12 education would be a fabulous idea.

I would organize these MOOCs around themes – for example, building qudrocopter drones, or harvesting honey from community-based hives, or environmental monitoring of a local waterway, or community court reporting, or … well, you get the idea. There are tons of such communities already on the web – a MOOC could form a nice bridge between them and students in classes. I would set up the MOOC to be persistent – that is, the same MOOC would run year after year, so there is an archive of information. Inside the MOOC there can be specific time-limited ‘classes’, which would help create and support networks. I think there’s a huge potential for experimentation here.

Again, if it were me, I’d set up the framework, and see whether students couldn’t organize their own MOOCs. And once they had done so, I’d join in the MOOC as a student, and model participation in a MOOC, bringing in resources and contributing to discussions.

> I just wonder if you study just these high end spikes are your results generalizable to all of the others who practice that activity. Will our students need to be in the top quintile of whatever field they choose and therefore need to find that affinity group where their passion will get them to that high level and therefore find success in life.

That’s a great question. My feeling is that the MOOC approach (again, thinking of a MOOC as an interconnected community of people creating and sharing) would appeal to all people. But this would of course be subject to confirmation in practice.

What we have seen in the MOOCs we have run so far is a clustering of very interested, active and motivated people at the centre, surrounded by a less connected set of observers and less active contributors, and surrounded by a corona of lurkers. This is what may be called ‘legitimate peripheral participation’; there’s no problem inherently with lurking. But it seems likely this structure would be reflected in K-12 practice, and that those who are lurkers would be the less able students, and vice versa. This would be less idea, as it would become self-reinforcing. So I think there needs to be enough MOOCs so everyone can be at the core of one or another MOOC, and there need to be attractors in MOOCs that draw these peripheral participants in closer. I don’t think that’s a problem that has been solved yet.

I think the demonstrated learning and feedback of students and parents would demonstrate the power of these ideas

I agree, but I also think there’s a matter of setting expectations too. Student learning, properly so-called, might not be any better in a MOOC, and if they become deeply engaged in a project, might actually be impaired. I can easily imagine a student becoming totally engaged in, say, a science project, and ignoring, say, geography class. I think that what a student would learn about science – not formulae and theorems, but actual practice, interaction among practitioners, and even the ‘feel’ of what to look for in a scientific environment, would be greatly enhanced in these communities, but the impact of this learning might not be observable for years, especially if it is not actively being measured.

Concordant therefore with the introduction of MOOCs I think it will be necessary to introduce alternative forms and systems of assessment. I’ve talked about this elsewhere.

I hope this helps.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Questions from students at Vancouver Island University

I received a flurry of questions on some articles on my website yesterday, questions from students at Vancouver Island University. Rather than attempt to answer them individually, I'm grouping there here.

Sharing in a competitive environment

Breanne, Sonny and Marieke asked, "we wonder how as teachers around the province create content, do we set up a sharing network when there is a strong competitive nature, and enable all instructors to share?" Similarly, Ben, Tracy and Kim asked, "How do we change the culture of competition that is present in delivery of online content, to make it more of a collaborative and open process?"

I would have liked to have heard more about the competitive nature of teaching in this environment. It could perhaps have to do with teachers' being ranked or given performance pay according to student outcomes, or some other competitive measure. Perhaps it has to do with schools competing against each other for funding, as occurs under legislation like No Child Left Behind.

Or, it may have to do with competition between students, as suggested by studies that argue that this sort of competition produces higher test scores (but, it appears to me, lower retention rates). Or perhaps they are thinking of themselves as future academics promoting competing theories and seeking to fund competing research agendas.

Speaking generally, I think that a perspective that views everything as a competition is limited and mistaken. It is clear that in many cases, including the four scenarios just described, there are instances in which every person in a group working together will achieve greater outcomes than a person working with nobody else.This is the economic basis for corporate organization and division of labour, as well as the formation of societies and communities.

By the same token, I think that views opposing competition altogether are equally mistaken. Beyond the highly impractical matter of obtaining collaboration in all things, and the desire of people to pursue their own good in their own way, competition creates conditions under which different approaches and different hypotheses can be tested. Without competition there would be no evolution and no growth.

So the question is, in all four scenarios, not how we can eliminate competition and foster an attitude of collaboration, but rather, what degree of competition is appropriate in such scenarios, and how does the practice of sharing resources reconcile with that degree of competition.

I think that recasting our perspective on competition is important. Typically, competition is represented as competition against each other. We think of examples such as games or, in a jungle "red in tooth and claw," a battle to the death. But this is only one perspective of competition, a highly artificial one, and one that is limited in scope.

By far the greater range of competition, and (in my opinion) all forms of competition that realize greater economic benefits, are cases where the individuals competing compete not against each other but against some third party, ideally a non-human agent. In many sports, such as darts or archery, the battle, as they say, is "with yourself". In other endeavours, the competitors attempt to achieve some outcome in a hostile environment.

In this model of competition, it is not the diminishment of another that is the objective, but the augmentation of personal score. This is especially the case if the potential competition is not a single entity or team, as it is in artificial situations, but a large number of competitors, as is the case in more realistic environments. Though it may appear that you are in competition with the gas station across the street, you are in fact attempting to raise your own revenue, and this depends on the heath of the community as a whole. This is the basis of cluster theory, which attempts to convince businesses, even competing businesses, in a community to work together and build their strengths.

And this is the basis behind cooperative theories of education. The premise is that students can learn more individually while working together than they could working as individuals in competition with each other. Cooperation is not simply the absence of competition (which is why studies that use the Herfindahl index are fallacious). It is the employment of mechanisms that promote interactions among individuals to create an environment that supports greater achievement for everyone.

For a typically Canadian example, consider the case of clearing the snow on the outdoor rink. One individual could skate better than another if he is able to clear some snow and the other cannot. But he cannot clear the whole rink without exhausting himself. But if everybody cooperates to clear the whole rink, then everybody skates better, even the person who could clear a section of rink for himself. This may reduce his effectiveness against the other individuals in the rink, but will increase his effectiveness in the wider would of skating. Indeed, unless the entire rink is cleared, he will not be able to compete outside his own rink at all!

So the argument to be made is, even if a condition of competition exists, if we analyze the nature of the competition, we can show that individuals who share resources are more likely to be successful than those who do not share resources. Cultivating a practice of sharing increases the baseline, so everybody is capable of that much more, which is useful in every form of competition except a direct personal combat between two adversaries.

Indeed, even boxers train together, teams play exhibition games against each other, and all share their understanding of the game with the wider community, both to promote the game, and to encourage the development of new players.

Responsible Internet Use

Andrew and Behn ask, "How do we ensure that when we give students the ability to blog/post that they will do so in a mature and focused manner, most importantly the younger students?"

My first inclination is to ask, "what do you mean by responsible?" The word 'responsible' is one of those code-words that hides a whole range of preferred behaviours, from respecting copyright to keeping the language clean to refraining from bullying and hurtful behaviour to staying on topic, sitting up, and paying attention.

I further would want to ask, "what do you mean by responsible for young children?" When I ask this, I suggest that we need to be careful not to expect a level of behaviour that is unreasonable. We don't expect children to assemble in small groups, chat politely, and discuss the topics of the day in hushed and respectful tones while they're out on the playground. We expect rowdy, noisy, boisterous behaviour - and we even think this is good for them!

So that's my first reaction to the question. My second reaction is that people don't learn what they're told, they learn what they're shown. It has always struck me as ironic that politicians who live one day away from indictment for fraud or tax evasion or whatever speak piously about the crime rates of about cheating in our schools.

How many teachers tell their students to blog without giving them examples of what good (age-appropriate) blogging looks like? When I wrote about educational blogging, I advised that the best first step was to have potential future bloggers begin by reading other blogs. This is not simply because the best blogging is in response to something else (though it it), it's because people learn from examples of good practice.

If we don't show children examples of good blogging, they will learn from and emulate the Simpsons, Fox News, the Jerry Springer Show, and similar unhealthy examples. The last thing we want our students to do is to behave like adults! Teachers who want their students to blog should begin by blogging themselves, and to develop their blogging tastes by linking to and talking about the examples of good blogging they find in the world.

Finally, my third response to this question is to question the emphasis. While there are obviously limits we want to set - we don't want them to use their blogs to promote hatred (and violence in the Middle East), and we don't want them to use their blogs to share songs (and be sued for millions by the music industry) - it is unclear why we would make the focus on internet use 'responsible behaviour'.

To me it is far more relevant to think about how we can use blogs and the internet to promote creativity, to promote lively interaction, to promote fun and games, to promote following one's interests and engaging with the wider community. While behaving responsibly obviously forms a part of this, it is in the greater scheme of things a smallish part.

I think there's something wrong with an attitude that begins with a perspective along the lines of "how can we control this to prevent the bad" rather than one that begins "how can we support this to extend the good". Most of the bad could probably be dealt with if we would only set some good examples ourselves, and the rest can be dealt with on an as needed basis.

The whole process of setting expectations is essential - but it's so much more powerful when expressed in terms of what you can do, as opposed to being framed in terms of what you can't do. Good learning empowers; it doesn't needlessly constrain.

Cloud Computing and Learning Theory

Laura and Margot ask, "We're part of Vancouver Island University's graduate program in Online Teaching Development and are wondering how you see cloud computing shifting online learning models/theories."

I would begin by observing that the role of theory, properly so-called, is vastly overstated in education, and therefore would express the hope that cloud computing makes this a but clearer and more obvious.

The vast range of educational theories should by itself show us that something is amiss. In physics we might disagree about the nature of gravity, but nobody disputes whether it exists. In education, there would be schools of thought devoted to the idea that gravity is a sham and that we ought to be studying natural motion.

I don't think that the shift to cloud computing carries with it a substantial change in theoretical perspective in and of itslef, but I think it's a part of a wider change in perspective from education being a domain that studies how we teach others to a domain studying how we teach ourselves.

Because of information and communications technologies, the ways people teach and learn are becoming more visible, and hence, easier to study and emulate. As a consequence, not only can people learn for themselves, people can learn how to teach from others, with a result that the overall practice of teaching and learning are themselves changing in ways we can observe and study.

It may be premature to predict the the science of learning that will eventually result from such observations, but it seems clear that the scholarship that leads to such a science will change. Closed and tiny studies measuring incremental improvements in 'performance' as demonstrated in pre- and post-tests of a single mid-west American classroom will no longer form the basis for theory and practice.

Quite the contrary. Many of the innovations will come from outside traditional scholarship. For example, few (if any) scholars predicted the Khan Academy, and most would have railed against the possibility, much less the educational effectiveness, but the success and widespread popularity of the initiative helped spawn a new approach to online learning and threatens to overturn what scholars believed they knew about the field.

Educational theorists sometimes like to pretend that they are doctors and physicists and to study learning in fine-grained detail, but unlike doctors, they do not even know what they are studying, cannot agree on what counts as evidence, and have no generally accepted measure of what counts as 'improvement', much less 'good', in educational practice. And while doctors and physicists are at least willing to admit they are facing chaotic phenomena and to re-calibrate practice, educational theorists continue to play in the Newtonian world of objects and causes.

In the years to come, we will re-conceptualize the role of the educator, and step back from a perspective of education as a domain in its own right, with a set of competing paradigms, and reimagine learning as a cpomplex phenomenon lying at the intersection of disciplines such as health and nutrition, psychology, perception and memory, communications technology and social network theory.

Educators themselves will be professionals well educated in the above disciplines, functioning primarily in a support role (as do doctors and psychologists today) helping people manage their educational health and development in an information- and learning-rich environment. This isn't just a consequence of the move to cloud computing, but the move to cloud computing is a major part of this.

A Level Playing Field

Jane, Kevin and Michael ask, "How can we ensure that all students have the basic skills, equipment and competencies to use DL, bring all learners up to a level playing field... ie: software and hardware?

This is actually a multi-part question that has no answer.

It's multi-part in the sense that it asks about two very different things, about the "basic skills" and "competencies", first, and about "equipment", "software and hardware", second.

And it has no answer because there is nothing anyone can do to "ensure" that all students have these, particularly for a wide definition of "all". Our best efforts may leave some children unprepared and under-equipped. We need to ask not how we can guarantee an optimal outcome, but rather, what steps we can take to work toward that outcome. It's a small shift in perspective, but an important open, because it changes us from a perspective of managing and evaluating others, to a perspective of being change agents in our own right.

When we talk about the two parts, "skills" and "hardware", we need to ask a similar sort of question in each case: what counts as "basic", "adequate", "essential", and the like? These are both moving targets - especially when it comes to technology. What counted as "basic" just a couple years ago is considered "inadequate" today. Do your students have LTE wireless? Too slow! They must replace their iPhones today! (Just kidding)

I have taken a stab at what I think are the essential skills with my account of the critical literacies. These are not the same as your typical definitions of either critical thinking, literacy in general, or computer literacy. I've tried to aim at a level that lies below those, to take into account varying languages and forms of representation, communications technologies and paradigms, and the rest.

I think that the best mechanism for ensuring that students have these skills is to expose them to progressive environments where these skills are valued, can be obtained, are reinforced through practice, and have pragmatic outcomes - for example, in gaming and simulation environments.  I wrote a bit about this here and here in recent days.

As for the technology (and actually, as to the education in general), I think that we need to be looking at policies that range well beyond education in particular. It has to do with the goals of education.  Consider what Pasi Sahlberg has to say about the state of education in Finland:
Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity... In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.
 Ensuring children have access to technology means, in short, making it a priority. There is nothing particularly challenging about the concept, in the sense that we know how to do it and have a good sense of what it would cost. The challenge lies in the belief that somehow still prevails in some communities that education is a competition, and that you should reward the winners and drop support for the losers.

The Content on Websites

In a related question, Wendy asked, "We thought, though, that adults are more discerning when it comes to weeding through the vast amount of information on the internet, and youth tend to believe everything they see and read. Do you have any strategies to ensure that students evaluate the validity of content on the web?"

My first reaction to this question is that the bulk of misleading content on the web comes from adults, and that it is adults who are mostly misled by this content. 

I wrote an article a few years back, Principles for Evaluating Websites, which outlines the major ways people can evaluate online information for themselves.

Having said that, I think the most important thing is to be careful not to foster an attitude in children that they can or must believe everything they are told. This actually runs counter to some educational practices, where they are intended to absorb information uncritically, and where the only educational value lies in demonstrating how well they have remembered what they have been told.

Even if it is true that constructivist methodologies teach less efficiently (and I have my doubts abnout this) these methodologies have the advantage that they require students to build their own knowledge piece by painful piece. There is now a penalty for being misdirected, and that is that it will be more difficult to build on false information wrongly believed.

Placing students in environments where the more important skills are to solve problems, communicate with others and create solutions will reinforce in them the values of critical evaluation, inference from evidence and experience, and deductive reasoning.

Take computer programming, for example. You might be able to teach a person more quickly how to write a REST interface by giving them sample code and describing what to do - this is the 'worked examples' model. But these skills do not transfer to downloading and installing a security certificate - there's simply no conceptual overlap between the two. But if the REST assignment requires that students learn for themselves from examples and dialogue on the internet, they will not only learn REST interfaces, but also what to trust and what not to trust in online internet chatter about computer systems, which in turn will help them assess political discussion (say) more critically.

That's the thing with education. What we think is the 'outcome' of the process is never really the outcome.If you simply case whether or not they learn how to code REST interfaces, that's all they will learn. But if you want them to acquire a wider range of skills, you need to place them in a more challenging environment (and then encourage cooperation so they have a decent chance of success in that environment).

Innovative Tools

Suzi and Michelle asked, "What innovative eLearning tools do you consider leading the way in the next 5 years?"

I think Google's announcement thatmost campuses are not using Google cloud technologies, as well as their release of a course-building tool last week, point significantly to the direction of online learning in the future, particularly when you add to this things like Stanford's new platform, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and even my own gRSShopper application, are pointing the way. These are all variations on the theme of the personal learning environment (PLE), and I think that this - or something like this - is the wave of the future.

It is important to understand that a PLE might be nothing more than your browser. At its core, the PLE is a mechanism for accessing a wide variety of cloud environments, including, but not restricted to, the Google cloud. And add to that what will in the future be considered essential personalization aspects - your personal educational record, your portfolio, and other personal metadata. Here's my presentation on personal learning environments (plus some volcano footage). Enjoy.

It's hard to overestimate the impact of this new approach. Last weekend I spent all day Saturday studying security certificates for websites. In my email the other day I received an offer from Coursera to enrol in a course on programming for IOS platforms that I seriously considered joining (even though it would cost $40). I've been reviewing a huge pile of information from James O'Reilly on a simulation platform hosted on Steam called Garry's Mod. I taught myself webcasting and this hobby led me to an extensive examination of K-Pop.

Given the means, and given the ability to follow their own interests and passions, people will be able to give themselves a deep, invigorating custom education in pretty much whatever they want. This changes the very foundation of education, and is doing so at an increasingly rapid pace.

Implementing Online Learning

Justin, Jane and Jean ask, "How will brick and mortar schools in British Columbia successfully integrate the principles of online learning, given the obstacles of teacher training and the cost of equipment upgrade and management?"

When you put the question like that, my answer is, "very badly." When means (once again) we need to examine just what is being said in the question.

There are four parts to this question: what it is to 'successfully integrate', what the 'principles of online learning' are, what the 'obstacles of teacher training' and finally, the 'cost of equipment upgrade...'.

The first part contains within it a presumption that what is currently being done is more or less correct, and that online learning is something that will simply be added or 'integrated' into what is already being done. But in fact, I think it will replace what is already being done.

Let me demonstrate what I mean by analogy. Imagine that the great new technology wasn't computers, imagine it was 'field trips'. Suppose we decided for one reason that field trips should become an important part of education. Would we 'integrate' field trips into the class? Not really - you can't teach math while on a field trip, and you can't go on a field trip while you're teaching math - and efforts to combine the two will be strained an ineffective.

No, what would happen instead would be that field trips are gradually introduced. You might take an hour a week the first year, a day a week the second year, three days a week by year five, and have a 100% field trip-based education by the time you were done. Things like 'math class' and 'chem lab' would disappear and the much more effective methodology would replace them completely.

This is what I see happening with online education. I see it as gradually replacing traditional classes. Indeed, I see it as getting students out of those classes and into the community. This might happen only for a few hours at first, but over time, all traditional educational activities will be replaced with computer (and teacher) supported activities using computer technology to support participation in real world communities and activities.

So, next, what are the principles of online learning? I think it's a mistake to suppose that there are principles, properly so-called. I think that online learning encompasses a range of behaviours that are not governed by principles but are more like a skill or a profession. To learn online is to interact with an environment the way a surfer interacts with a wave or a doctor interacts with a patient.

The best way to obtain these skills is to practice. That is not to ignore theoretical background - even doctors have to study the books - but it means that the bulk of one's education is spent attempting to do the sort of things they are trying to learn to do, and beginning this process from a young age. So, say, when a kid says, "I want to be a firefighter," the result of this is that he actually spends some time in a fire hall learning how it's done. No, we don't send him into burning buildings, but he does learn how to put out fires using real fires.And where better to learn this than with firefighters?

Is teacher training an obstacle to this? I think that thinking of it as 'training' is an obstacle. I think that thinking of teachers as production workers or semi-skilled staff is an obstacle. I think that a lot of the 'training' teachers get - in, say, educational theory - is an obstacle. But I think that advanced and professional education for teachers is not an obstacle, but rather, a necessary condition for making this happen.

Which leads, finally, to the cost of equipment upgrades, which I addressed briefly above, but which I'll revisit briefly.

In matters concerning expenditures the problem for the most part is not that we do not have the money, but rather, that the proposed expenditure is not a priority.

In some cases, we literally do not have the money. Canada probably has the technical capacity to send an astronaut to Mars, but we don't have the financial resources (at least, I don't think we do - I could be wrong about this). But for most everything else we could do in society, the mosy is there, but is being spent on other things.

I will highlight just two expenditures to make the point: F-35 fighters, and the frigate construction program. Between the two of them expenditures total about $50 billion. We could give every man, woman and child an iPad for that money, and stock them full of educational content. We won't do that because we have determined that the marginal improvements in security these military acquisitions would produce are more important.

But that said, in the end, education is expensive. Providing an education is expensive. What we need to do, if we can, is to put the conditions in place where people are able to provide their own education. Yes, we need to put into place programs that ensure maximal equity. Yes, we need to ensure that teachers can respond to individual needs with professional responses. But in the end, the best and only way to address cost issues is to eliminate the cost, and to empower individuals.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Critical Thinking and Knowledge Domains

by Stephen Downes

Responding to Alex Reid (posting here in case he doesn't approve the post in moderation):

It would be helpful if we understood what you mean by critical thinking, because critical thinking as I understand it (and have taught it) doesn't really resemble what you describe in this article. You write, "critical thinking generally means 'close reading,'", but that suggests to me that you don't know what critical reasoning is, not that critical reasoning is somehow deficient.

As an analogy, think of critical thinking as being similar to math. That is to say, critical reading is not only a mechanism for study and representation (for example, 'close reading') but also a mechanism for drawing inferences and correcting errors. If a person says "I had four boxes and you have three, so we have eight," we have to 'close read' to understand the sentence, but beyond that, we want to use mathematics to correct the error.

The same with critical thinking. If someone says "If he was polluting the river, we'd see it, and by George we see it! so he must be polluting the river," we need to read to understand, but it is an application of critical thinking (and specifically, the rules of propositional inference) when we say that this person's conclusion is not supported by the evidence and reasoning.

Critical thinking cuts a wide swatch across all disciplines. Just like with mathematics, the principles of critical thinking do not change from one domain to the next. An argument that fails in history also fails in biochemistry. What counts as a good type of explanation in physics also counts in English (and the types of explanations are evaluated in the same way). We criticize definitions in geography the same way we criticize definitions in botany.


hi, it is just a simple contribution not a critics, by me. But  the first part as cri or cry or cre, all referance for a simple problem model. In term of its etymology, the term of "critical" and its way of  thinking should represent a problem or contradiction or something else to reflect an unverified dimension, that makes a rule of methodic value in case of thematic frame rather than its dependency to any kind of data.  ... thanks and regards. 

Charles Nelson30 Aug 2012
To me, you reinforce Reid's article. That is, in English studies, critical thinking and close reading are close to synonymous, but as you noted, they're not the same, or in other words, what counts as critical thinking in one domain (i.e., English) doesn't in another domain.

All seem a way to relativity theory.Yeap! the fresh news on higgs boson and so the quantum discourses are ringing even the ring is a circle as a closed term, per se. While to the relative domain adresses, the network itself is an interdepented system of doing a main ping  as an inquiry of theory of everything that may let a discourse for critical thinking of everything. Thus interdisciplinary thinking should have some critics. For example: Laser test on mars is called as a chemical test. But should it be called as if only  chemical, really?  

Stephen Downes30 Aug 2012Edit
> in English studies, critical thinking and close reading are close to synonymous,

I'm sorry, they're not. Not in English studies. Not anywhere.

Charles Nelson30 Aug 2012
Perhaps the word "synonymous" was too strong, but they are closely associated in English studies as close reading is a part of critical thinking when reading and analyzing texts. For just a few examples:

Amemic, Joel H. ""Close Readings" of Internet Corporate Financial Reporting: Towards a More Critical Pedagogy on the Information Highway." Internet and Higher Education, v1 n2 p87-114 1998.

Elder, Linda, & Richard Paul. "Critical Thinking... and the Art of Close Reading, Part IV." Journal of Developmental Education, v28 n2 p36-37 Win 2004. (and see Parts II, III, & IV)

Kelemen, Erick. "Critical Editing and Close Reading in the Undergraduate Classroom." Pedagogy; Winter2012, Vol. 12 Issue 1, p121-138.

Webb, Allen. "Digital Texts and the New Literacies". English Journal, v97 n1 p83-88 Sep 2007.
Abstract excerpt: "Using these online resources opened up possibilities for new ways of teaching and learning traditional skills of close reading and critical analysis."

And from an English department's website:
"Through courses in literature and in writing, our majors hone their ability to read critically, reason analytically, and write clearly."

Stephen Downes30 Aug 2012Edit
'Critical Reading' is not the same as 'critical thinking'. And being 'associated' is not the same as being 'synonymous'. If there are online versions, I'll review the articles you cite; otherwise, I'm hundreds of kilometres from any library that might have them.

AYDIN SARIKAYA30 Aug 2012 (edited)

It seems as happy end. I would like to conribute with a correction:
the first referance: Amemic, Joel H.. It seems a result of copy-past accidents, as a good example of self-critical manners. ... Anyway, its original form is not AMEMIC but AMERNIC, and it may be caused because of Amemic and Amernic "similarity":).

That seems other example of value of design pedagogy.. Here is online link for it and others as I realised for this nice case: Here they are dear Stephen:

 AMERNIC Joel H. ""Close Readings" of Internet Corporate Financial Reporting: Towards a More Critical Pedagogy on the Information Highway."

Elder, Linda, & Richard Paul. "Critical Thinking... and the Art of Close Reading,

parts are linked at bottom..

Webb, Allen. "Digital Texts and the New Literacies".  This referance is also in the part of source:  Literature and the Web

Charles Nelson30 Aug 2012
"You write, "critical thinking generally means 'close reading,'", but that suggests to me that you don't know what critical reasoning is."

One problem for me is that you are declaring that your version of critical reasoning is the only one that's valid and that other disciplines have no right to decide what critical thinking means in their own field. 

Stephen Downes30 Aug 2012Edit
There's isn't something that is "my version" of critical thinking - and your suggestion that there is begs the question.

Howard Johnson00:00
I think there are different levels of analysis that are possible and likely in play in this discussion.  Alex's point about transfer between contexts is valid.  We always speak into an ongoing conversation that shapes what is considered to be appropriate to say and to do.  Though it is possible to take a critical stance, the details are different, which may create transfer problems for anyone using a standard process.  An understanding of potential analytic lenses like rhetoric or assessment validity will deepen what is meant by any critical analysis.
So, I do believe that a valid approach to critical thinking is not a process, but a stance or an attitude that is shaped to the context where it find its application.  

Enaa Zausen13:07
i havent read far into his piece yet...but even in the first few dozen lines i sense an odd disconnect between what you write and what he has written.....  there are obvious sentiment inferences he makes (despite his english errors) that make him not the target you take him for...
perhaps you are 'transferring' from somewhere inside your head... to take advantage of his position and rather silly (rhinestone like) opening assertion... in order to acquire a target for your own ends....
i often find my psychology attempting this over my own mindful and thinking processes....

Stephen Downes13:32Edit
It will probably be useful for me to at some time write about what actually varies from domain to domain, and what does not.

For example, evidence.

- in different domains, different standards of evidence apply - eg. a CSI requires forensic evidence, while a lawyer might need only circumstantial evidence
- but in all domains, evidence must be tangible, publicly observable and documented (otherwise it is not evidence, it is something else)

Or, for example, definitions.

- in different domains, the word 'allowable' may be defined by different criteria, eg. what is 'legally' allowable may be different from what is 'morally' allowable
- but in all domains, the definition must describe all and only instances of 'allowable', may be criticized for being too broad or too narrow, and is illegitimate if inherently contradictory

In my own word, I describe six critical literacies, which define the fundamentals of critical thinking. They are: syntax, semantics, pragmatics, context, cognition and change.

In 'context', for example, I discuss the changing standards of evidence. While we recognize that there are different standards of evidence for different domains, it is a general skill, not specific to any domain, to be able to identify the appropriate domain and, accordingly, the standards of evidence to apply.

Similarly, 'definition' falls under the heading of 'cognition'. While we recognize that different definitions apply in different domains, it is a general skill, independent of any domain, to be able to create and evaluate appropriate definitions.

I find that people arguing that critical thinking varies from domain to domain do not draw these distinctions appropriately, often because of a lack of clarity in describing exactly what changes from domain to domain.

For example, Howard Johnson says, "An understanding of potential analytic lenses like rhetoric or assessment validity will deepen what is meant by any critical analysis."

The use of the 'lens' metaphor is common in the humanities and social sciences, and indicates a process of looking for specific entities (such as the use of rhetorical devices, or an assessment of the validity of arguments).

The nature and availability of these 'lenses' may vary from discipline to discipline (the use of rhetorical device, for example, doesn't apply (much) to cartography), but surely the process of identifying, selecting and evaluating a 'lens' is something not specific to any given discipline.

The very suggestion that there are different domains of knowledge, and that we can switch between them, entails the existence of a meta-domain, called 'critical thinking', which consists at a minimum of the knowledge of,selection of, and evaluation of, these domains.